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Nov 24, 2008

From Watford to Wellington

During an 18-year footballing career, he's ridden the highs and the lows: from scoring against Manchester United and Liverpool in the Premier League to facing a prison sentence for drink driving after an off-season drinking spree.

He's experienced the joy of winning a Wembley final and also the sorrow of ruptured knee ligaments that derailed his international career before it really began.

Richard Johnson's life would probably make a compelling movie script and yet he hails from the unfashionable Australian town of Kurri Kurri, has never played for one of Europe's big clubs and now finds himself on the fringes of Wellington Phoenix in the A-League.

At the age of 34, Johnson is fighting for his future and trying to get his career back on the rails after being sidelined with a painful shingles injury as his side have moved up to sixth on the table after 12 rounds, just two points outside the top four.

It's three and half years since Johnson returned Down Under after 14 seasons playing in England, most notably for Watford where he became a fans' favourite after joining as a trainee, aged 16. After being part of the Hornets' rapid rise from England's third tier including the 1998/99 Championship play-off final, he made 23 Premier League appearances under Graham Taylor.

In all, he tallied an impressive 242 matches for Watford over a dozen years, scoring 20 times including a goal of the 1994/95 season against Wolves.

Johnson was voted by one Watford supporters' group as the "Midfielder of the 1990s", and even today, many long-time fans speak of him in glowing terms. "Magnificent," one website observed. "A midfielder of authority, vision, energy, potency. A midfielder who could dwarf Wembley."

During Watford's Premiership season eight years ago, Johnson made his full Socceroos debut, coming on as a substitute as Australia lost 3-1 away to the Czech Republic in March 2000 in a side that included Mark Viduka, Stan Lazaridis and Tony Popovic. The year before he made two 'B' appearances against a Brazil XI.

Exactly one month after facing the Czechs, Johnson was carried off on a stretcher at Vicarage Road after suffering a serious knee injury in the 3-2 defeat to Manchester United. That began a saga that saw him play only a handful of games over the next three years after complications stemming from an unsuccessful reconstruction surgery and some poor medical advice.

With doubts over his long-term future and after a loan spell at Northampton, Watford released him in October 2003. Johnson had less successful stints at Colchester, Stoke, QPR and the MK Dons before returning home for the start of the A-League in 2005.

The Newcastle Jets were his hometown club - a short drive from where he grew up in Kurri Kurri in Australia's Hunter Valley wine region. But after playing in 20 of 23 games as the Jets finished fourth in their inaugural campaign, Johnson headed to Auckland to join the now defunct New Zealand Knights for what would be their final A-League season in 2006/07.

The demise of the shambolic Knights saw the better-organised Wellington Phoenix fill the void as the New Zealand franchise and Johnson was offered a contract. But back home in Newcastle for a trip ahead of the Phoenix's entry to competition, Johnson was arrested in March 2007 for drink driving, with a reported blood alcohol level reading four times above the legal limit.

He was initially sentenced to an eight-month jail term and faced the prospect of having his Wellington deal torn up. But after an appeal, a remorseful Johnson was given a suspended sentence and allowed to continue to his football career.

Later that year - in December 2007 - he faced David Beckham and the LA Galaxy in an exhibition match at Wellington's Westpac Stadium before a record-crowd for a football match in New Zealand of 31,853. Johnson made 14 A-League appearances for the Phoenix in the 2007/08 season and seven so far this season.

Forcing his way back into the Wellington team, his favourite memories of the Watford years and ex-England manager Graham Taylor were topics of discussion in Johnson's interview with ESPNsoccernet. But he prefers not to discuss last year's brush with the law.

Q: Richard, your season has been disrupted by a shingles injury. What's the outlook for the rest of the campaign, given your age and the problems that you've had?
A:
The shingles knocked me back a little bit. I was involved regularly and getting plenty of time on the park before getting the shingles. But I'm fit and healthy now and I'm concentrating on working hard and getting back into the team. I've got to make sure that I can contribute for the team in any game-time I get. Given that I'm getting older these sorts of problems take a little more time to recover from - those niggly little injuries take their toll over the years.

Q: You've called New Zealand your home in football terms since 2006. How's do you compare the Wellington Phoenix experience with your time with the Knights in Auckland?
A:
It doesn't compare at all. The Knights were a shambles from start to finish. What Terry Serepisos has got going here at the Phoenix is a professional football club with a great fan-base, a professional administration and management set-up and a growing reputation. Things are going from strength to strength on the playing side, as evidenced by the signing of Fred as a guest player for the club. So everything's looking really good and you can't make any comparisons to the Knights, because the two organizations are poles apart.

Q: With more than a decade playing in the UK, what do you try to bring to your midfield role in the A-League?
A:
Just a little bit of experience and organisation. I try to be reliable, really, it's as simple as that.

Q: What are your fondest memories of playing in England and appearing in the Premier League?
A:
There are so many. Probably making my debut for Watford in the old first division when I was 17 after going over there when I was only 16 to try and earn a professional contract. Playing at Wembley as well when we won a 2-0 play-off final to get into the Premier League. Scoring a goal at Old Trafford, scoring against Liverpool - there are so many highlights for me.

Q: Much has been written about ex-England manager Graham Taylor but what are your strongest impressions after playing for him at Watford?
A:
I was with Graham for five years and he was superb. I don't care what people write or say about him - obviously his time with England didn't go according to his plans - but as a club manager he's the best I've ever worked with.

Q: What about your best memories of your three Socceroo appearances in 1999 and 2000?
A:
It was good to finally make my debut for my country, even though it was pretty late in my career. It was a great experience playing a couple of games against Brazil at home and away against the Czech Republic. I'd sort of just got in and around the squad when I ruptured my ACL and spent the next two years on the sideline, so that interrupted my international career.

Q: Finally, how do you see your future beyond your playing career and when might that be?
A:
I'd like to play for as long as I can, but if I don't get any offers then I suppose the end of my career isn't too far away, considering my age. I don't know what I see myself doing when my playing career ends - perhaps coaching kids or something like that. I'm looking at doing my cert. 3 and cert. 4 in personal training. I've always been quite a fit lad, so I want to continue down some sort of sports line. We'll just have to wait and see.

•  Sydney-born Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.

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